My Monkey: The Sad Life of ro4040
An Animal Rights Article from


Bill Lueders,
August 2008

"I was there on the day he was born, in a Madison research lab. Five years later, I checked up on him," writes former vivisector, Amy Kerwin.

The first entry, for April 26, 2004, sets the tone for much of what follows: "Born today, rejected by mother, male infant."

Thus begins the life story and paper trail of r04040, a rhesus macaque monkey at the National Primate Research Center in Madison. He's one of the center's nearly 1,500 "nonhuman primates" used for experimentation and research that draws $46 million a year into the UW-Madison.

But he's not just any monkey. He's and I know this is an odd thing to say my monkey. I was there on the day he was born, getting a tour of the facility for a story in Isthmus.

Back then, my tour guides brought me into a bright and sterile room in which r04040 lay in an incubator. At first he looked dead. Then he slowly opened his tiny eyes and looked at me. I may have been the first person he ever saw. (And what a sight I must have been, in the lab smock, mask, shower cap and clear plastic face shield all visitors must wear!)

In the five years since, I've often thought about r04040. What kinds of studies and experiments was he being used for? Was he even still alive? Would knowing what his life was like support the arguments made by the center's proponents, that it does vital research under the most humane conditions possible? Or would it bolster critics, who say these animals are pointlessly abused?

Some things I knew: r04040 had never had anything like a normal or natural monkey life. He'd never seen the sky or sunlight or grass or trees. He'd never foraged for food. The only living things he'd encountered were other monkeys and humans covered head to toe in odd garb.

His life was expropriated to serve human interests because humans have decided they have that right. He was conscripted by birth into a place where, to quote Arlo Guthrie, "you get injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected!"

As the five-year anniversary of my visit neared, I asked for records regarding the use and care of r04040. The UW ultimately gave me 25 pages of entries that collectively told the story of my monkey's life.

For several years, r04040 was housed in a pen with other juveniles. Now fully grown, he lives with another monkey in a tiny cage in a roomful of other similarly paired monkeys.

Monkeys in captivity can develop neuroses and even psychoses. They may engage in repetitive behavior like pacing, or self-mutilate. My monkey seems to have spent much of his life suffering from chronic diarrhea or being injured by cage mates.

But the most shocking thing was the experiments r04040 has been used for during his first five years almost none at all. That prompted me to ask further questions of my monkey's keepers, and ultimately brought me back into contact with him, face to face.

The National Primate Research Center at the UW-Madison is one of eight such centers in the United States, all funded primarily by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It is home, at last count, to 1,186 rhesus macaques, 212 marmosets and 75 cynomolgus (a.k.a. crab-eating) macaques. The Harlow Center for Biological Psychology, located a stone's throw from the Primate Center, has an additional 500 rhesus macaques.

In 2007, the last year for which numbers are publicly available, Wisconsin led the nation in the use of monkeys for research. The total reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees animal research, was 8,559 monkeys, including 7,313 at Covance Laboratory on Madison's northeast side. More monkeys are being experimented on in Madison than any other place in the nation, perhaps the world. (Some other states have more monkeys, but the above numbers report only those used in experiments.)

For the current year, the Primate Center is receiving $42.7 million in federal funds, mostly from NIH, and about $3.5 million in nonfederal support, from foundations and industry. The UW's share in the center's costs, through the state's general fund, is nominal, about $250,000 a year.

The center's monkeys are housed in two large buildings near Regent Street. The UW has a master plan to double the size of its Primate Center facilities, to where it could house upwards of 2,500 primates. The center is optimistic it can snare some of the money the Obama administration is making available for such purposes.

About 150 monkeys a year die at the center, some as part of experiments, some from natural causes. About the same number are born.

Center director Joe Kemnitz and head veterinarian Saverio "Buddy" Capuano are generous with their time and remarkably open in their dealings with me. They seem proud of their role at the center, though both have been vilified over it. Kemnitz has twice had protesters show up at his home, in 2005 with a giant video screen showing ghastly images of primate research. Capuano has encountered "anger and ambivalence," even from within the veterinary community.

When the NIH office to which he referred me ignored my request for the center's annual report, Kemnitz gave me a copy, with nothing blacked out. Reports given by the feds to research critics redact the names of all researchers.

Most of the Primate Center's research focuses on AIDS, aging and stem cells. There are more AIDS-related studies than any other kind; the UW is a world leader in stem cell research; and the center's studies on how restricting calorie intake promotes longevity have recently been featured on 60 Minutes and CNN's Vital Signs.

Other studies concern bone loss, kidney transplants, movement disorders, stress and Parkinson's (funded in part by the Michael J. Fox Foundation). One recent study found that marmoset fathers exposed to a whiff of their own infants experienced decreased levels of testosterone. Now we know.

The center's annual report for the period ending Feb. 28, 2009, lists 26 core scientists engaged in research, and more than 200 affiliated scientists at the UW and other institutions. Over the last year, these efforts yielded 101 published papers, 88 of which mentioned the center.

That the center tracks such things is grist for its critics.

"Outside funding gives the school a reputation as a research institution," says Rick Marolt, a local opponent of primate research. "Researchers get labs, employees and can publish articles that will help them get professional recognition, tenure and promotion."

A native of the Twin Cities, Marolt moved to Madison in 1992. Eight years later, a local controversy over zoo elephants prompted him to attend a meeting of the local Alliance for Animals. "For the first time, I heard there were monkey labs in Madison," he recalls. "I instantly felt this was the most heinous thing in the world."

He still does. Marolt, 47, who teaches management courses at the UW and Edgewood College and does business consulting, sees primate research as a great and unnecessary evil, one in which UW officials, researchers and members of the press are complicit.

Animal experimentation, he says, is unreliable: "According to the FDA itself, 92% of the drugs found safe and effective in animals are not safe or not effective in people." Some are even harmful. Yet the agency insists that drugs be tested on animals first.

As for research into human pathology, adds Marolt, "The case is just overwhelming that nonhuman animals have not been good predictive models of human disease." And he questions the use of monkeys for AIDS research, since "monkeys do not even get HIV."

Marolt's main objections are not scientific but moral. As he puts it: "If researchers have proven that monkeys are very similar to people in cognition, emotion and social relationships so similar that they are viewed as functional replacements for people in research then why should monkeys not get similar ethical consideration?"

Moreover, Marolt disputes that one species ought to dominate another. He says that as recently as 30,000 years ago, three hominid species (including neanderthals) coexisted. Had they all survived, he asks, "Would the most powerful one have the right to experiment on the others? And what if you're not the most powerful one?"

Listed on the printout I received from the Primate Center are hundreds of events in the life of r04040 (see sidebar, "The Story of His Life"). It catalogs the chronic diarrhea and repeated injuries. But aside from routine DNA profiling and one brief placement in 2008, my monkey has apparently not been used for any research.

The animal welfare advocates I showed the report to found it appalling.

"r04040's life, taken as a whole, has to be balanced by the purported claim that using him is helping us," says Rick Bogle, Madison's best-known opponent of primate research. He sees no evidence of that. "So far, in his five years of life, it seems likely that he has been miserable. And for what?"

But Kemnitz and Capuano, who pair up for two interviews with me in Kemnitz's spacious office, see it differently. They think r04040 has had it pretty good.

"This animal has not had a difficult life," says Capuano. "He's healthier and happier than a lot of animals without being obese." The traumas he's experienced are "the normal things you're going to go through growing up."

Like chronic diarrhea and attacks by cage mates? Absolutely.

They say r04040's diarrhea, now less frequent, is not necessarily stress-related, even though his lab record speculates that it was. They say monkeys who live in the wild which Capuano suggests is actually more stressful experience diarrhea. As for the injuries from other monkeys, he adds that this is "exactly what happens when they live in the wild."

Rhesus monkeys, males especially, engage in aggressive play and establish dominance hierarchy. Capuano says no monkey has been killed by another in the more than four years he's worked at the center (after prior stints at primate labs in Philadelphia and California). Kemnitz allows that "We've had animals who lose fingers and body parts in fights." But the center is a relatively safe environment due to how closely the animals are monitored.

"We had more serious fights among animals at the zoo than here," says Kemnitz, referring to the time when the center lent its animals for this use (see sidebar, "Center Operates Out of Sight, Out of Mind"). "In this setting, they'd be separated right away."

Yet r04040's record shows he was reported for injuries 20 times in 2008 alone, apparently without the culprit(s) being identified or removed. It wasn't until Jan. 26 of this year that r04040 was removed from the group setting and paired with another male.

According to Kemnitz, the median life expectancy of primates at the center excepting those used in lethal research is 26 years, longer than typical in the wild. (Marolt is wholly unmoved by this line of contention: "We could put people in the same environment, keep them free of normal risks, give them medical attention, and maybe they would live longer too. So what?")

My hosts explain that it's not unusual that r04040 has not been used for experiments. Most researchers want to wait until the animals are young adults. "Very few get used before they're five years old," says Capuano.

r04040, they say, has been assigned to a pending project for infectious disease work. It's been determined that he lacks natural resistance to infections, which makes him an ideal subject.

I press the pair on the sentience of monkeys. These are highly intelligent animals who can count, problem-solve, discriminate between types of music, even empathize (one study found that rhesus monkeys will go hungry if getting food means shocking another monkey). Isn't it sad to see them spending their whole lives in cages?

Kemnitz and Capuano refuse to concede the point. "If you watch the animals, they don't look chronically depressed or sad," says Kemnitz. "They were born here. They're fed and cared for." And the center tries "to make their lives as enriched as we can."

Capuano agrees. "I'm a veterinarian," he notes. "I took an oath to protect animals."

What about sanctuary? It's been suggested that, if animals are needed for research, it should be for limited periods, after which they can spend the rest of their lives in a more natural environment.

Several such sanctuaries operate around the country. Amy Kerwin, a former UW primate researcher, has been trying to create one here (see her Isthmus essay, "Giving Back to the Monkeys," 10/12/07). And the UW recently found new homes, including sanctuaries, for a colony of 75 cotton-top tamarins deemed no longer useful for research.

Kemnitz and Capuano regard my question cautiously.

"I understand where they're coming from," says Kemnitz of sanctuary advocates. "I'm sympathetic."

But there are difficulties. For one thing, a "major focus" of the UW's work is on aging, for which it needs geriatric animals. Then there's the issue of cost: Who will pay for these sanctuaries? Who will buy their replacements ($5,000 per rhesus)?

"Philosophically, I'm not opposed [to sanctuary]," says Capuano. "Financially, that's another story."

Besides, who says a walk-on part in a sanctuary beats a lead role in a cage? As Kemnitz puts it, "Just because animals are living in a different environment doesn't mean they're better off."

Early one morning in April, I arrive at the Primate Center to take another tour. As in 2004, I've had to get a two-doctor-visit tuberculosis test; what's new are the 30 pages of rules to review and sign.

The security guard summons Capuano, who leads me to a room where I meet some animal-care staffers at the start of their shift. The center employs about 100 people, half of whom have regular contact with monkeys.

Capuano warns me about some of the primate behavior we may observe: "These animals don't even know me very well. They may respond to us aggressively and show off."

We head to a locker room to strip to socks and underwear, then dress in official garb: full-coverage scrubs, mask, shower cap, face shield, a double layer of latex gloves.

On the elevator ride to our destination, one worker tells Capuano, "The guys you're looking at are getting big for their cage."

It's true. r04040 and his cellmate, r04060, are both nearing 10 kilos (22 pounds). The federal Animal Welfare Act requires that monkeys between three and 10 kilos each have 4.3 square feet of floor space (that's 25 by 25 inches). But at 10 kilos they must get six square feet.

We enter a room with about a dozen double cages, each less than four feet in any direction. r04040 and r04060 are the only two monkeys in the room, in an upper-tier cage. Capuano says the room is going to be hosed down later that day, as is done every two weeks. These two were left behind for now, pending our visit.

Both monkeys react with alarm to our intrusion, pacing quickly back and forth and on several occasions throwing their bodies against the side of the cage, making a crashing sound. I try to take some photos, but it's difficult.

Capuano asks if I'd like r04040 put into a smaller enclosure nearer the floor. This will require the assistance of one of the staffers I met a few minutes ago.

While we're waiting for her to arrive, Capuano shows me a pair of larger, vaguely zoo-like rooms across the hall, joined by a transit hole. Both are also empty, due to renovations. Here, I'm told, is where r04040 spent most of his life, housed with about 10 other rhesus macaques.

Capuano also shows me a room like r04040's that happens to be full of monkeys. They dart about and make a lot of noise. Each cage contains a red plastic ball, one of the "enhancements" provided by the center to keep the monkeys occupied.

For a minute I am left alone by the doorway of this room. Suddenly one monkey, a 10-year-old male, leaps onto the cage wall, clutches the wire with all four limbs and pulls his body violently into it, eight times in rapid succession: Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam!

In the hallway are two large cages, each containing about 10 tiny marmoset monkeys. They're perched shoulder-to-shoulder on the top rung, as though posing for a family portrait. We make our way back to r04040's room.

The staffer, whom I hardly recognize in her getup, holds a transfer cage up to r04040's enclosure and creates an opening. Like a shot he rushes in, hitting the far wall.

"See how fast he did that?" asks Capuano, explaining that the monkeys are taught this, for when they must be moved. r04040 exits the transfer cage into the smaller enclosure just as swiftly.

I make mostly unsuccessful attempts to photograph my monkey as he darts nervously around his strange new environs. He regards me warily, opening his mouth in an obvious threat. Even when he adjusts to our presence becoming, says Capuano, "more comfortable" there is still fear in his eyes.

I wonder what I'm doing here, taking his picture, using him. Is the trauma my visit causes justified because I plan to write about it?

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